An article was published recently on the subject of ‘transgender children’ by Julia Serano, entitled “Detransition, Desistance and Disinformation: A Guide For Understanding Transgender Children Debates.” As author of ‘Whipping Girl’ Serano is one of the most influential voices in trans activism so we felt it important to respond to the points made in this article, but we urge you to first read these excellent responses from Crashchaoscats and Cari from guideonragingstars who speak much more eloquently than we could from the perspective of detransitioned women.
Serano presents a “step-by-step guide” to understanding transgender children, written as a “lengthy and nuanced piece” in response to recent published articles advocating caution in the transitioning of children (such as this piece by Jesse Singal). Serano is scathing about these “trans-unaware politicians, pundits and journalists” who “have suddenly swooped in to weigh in on these important issues — issues that (conveniently) they themselves are not personally invested in” (evidently meaning they are not transgender/transsexual themselves).
This article stands as evidence of the need for such viewpoints: Serano seems incapable of interpreting any critisism of the medicalisation of non-conforming children in terms other than ‘transphobia’ (mentioned 33 times throughout the article) and ‘moral panic’ about ‘turning cis people trans’ (mentioned 16 times). A view which admits no other form of discrimination nor the effect of cultural and social conditioning and social contagion, and which fails to take into account child psychology and development is not ‘nuanced’ but incomplete and one-sided.
Serano starts by providing a background regarding gender transition in adults, beginning with a definition of the word ‘transgender’ itself as referring to “people who defy societal expectations regarding gender.” Serano concedes that not all of these people will self-identify as transgender, but they:
“…are all viewed by society as defying gender norms in some significant way” including “people whose gender expression is non-conforming (e.g., feminine men, masculine women, people who are androgynous, etc.)”
So straight off we have a definition which includes all those who are not walking sex stereotypes, and probably all people at least some of the time. Serano’s definition of ‘transgender’ as a category which exists only in relation to societal expectations of gender makes more sense than the ‘innate gender identity at birth’ idea, given that ‘gender’ itself is a societal construction.
Next, Serano gives us an illuminating distinction between the words ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’:
“the word “transgender” is increasingly (mis)used to specifically refer to people who identify and live as members of the gender other than the one they were assigned at birth — that is, people who have historically been described as transsexual.”
Serano further emphasises the importance of this difference:
“the distinction between people who socially and/or physically transition (i.e., transsexuals), and those transgender-spectrum individuals who don’t transition, is germane to this conversation.”
Got it. Serano then adds:
“In trans activism, we often use the word cisgender to refer to people who are not transgender, and cissexual for people who are not transsexual”
This is news, because the word ‘cissexual’ is never used (who knew of its existence?) – ‘cis’ has always been used to mean ‘cisgender’ just as ‘trans’ has always been used to mean ‘transgender.’ Serano’s clarification of terms here changes everything: in relation to children, this is the picture:
- Any child whose behaviour/interests don’t conform to societal expectations of their sex is transgender.
- Any child whose ‘preferred gender’ is affirmed and who is encouraged to socially transition becomes ‘transsexual,’ as is any child or adolescent given puberty blockers or hormones.
- ‘Cisgender’ kids are those who conform to society’s ‘norms.’ (What teenager would want to see themselves in that category?)
If we have all been misusing the term ‘transgender’ it is because this is the word used by organisations like Gendered Intelligence, GIRES and Mermaids, who it now appears have been clearly misleading children, adolescents and parents as well as gender clinics, the NHS and the government in their use of the term, when what they really mean is ‘transsexual’. Is it that the ‘experts’ genuinely don’t know the difference, or is it down to a cynical understanding that we would not, as parents or as a society, jump to label children ‘transsexual’?
Throughout the remainder of this article, Serano consistently uses ‘transgender’ when the correct word would be ‘transsexual’ according to Serano’s own definition (including in the title of the article). ‘Trans’ and ‘cis’ are used throughout without specifying the exact meaning. If you set out to teach people about children, this is crucial information which is being withheld.
For example, Serano makes the assertion that “trans and cis are not immutable essentialist categories” but rather, fluid states which people can, and do, move between. Having previously taken pains to clarify language, it becomes clear that Serano here uses ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ to mean transsexual and cissexual:
“…people start, but then stop for some reason or another (e.g., out of fear, or it didn’t feel right for them). Some transsexuals who started-then-stopped in the past, may successfully transition years later, under different life circumstances.”
The categories ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ each have two completely different meanings: ‘moving from conforming behaviour to non-conforming behaviour’ changes in the blink of an eye to ‘beginning sex-change medication/surgery, stopping and then starting it again.’ It’s obviously critical to make the distinction, but it is typical of trans activists’ writing that terms are conflated so that people find themselves agreeing with ideas they would never entertain if spelled out clearly. Behaving in a way which feels authentic is very different to altering your body with synthetic hormones for any young person, but as the process of transition for teenage girls almost inevitably involves a double mastectomy and some irreversible effects of testosterone after only a few months treatment, this jumping in and out of ‘trans’ has much more severe implications for girls.
The confusion between ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’ is further obfuscated in this statement:
“Transness is not something that can be easily or objectively measured — it is inherently subjective and experiential. Transitioning is a matter of personal exploration, of finding what works for you on the individual level.”
So does ‘transness’ mean non-conformity to sex stereotypes or transsexualism? If we are saying children are ‘trans’ it is crucial to know which we mean, but using the word as a catch-all term to describe a subjective state which cannot be measured conveniently obscures the questions we should be asking when applying this word to children.
So we come to the point of the article: Serano wants to refute the idea that anyone can be ‘made’ trans:
“As I outlined at the start of this section, the argument that some people are easily swayed or misled into transitioning can only be made if one intentionally denies, discounts, or downplays the existence of societal transphobia, gender dysphoria, and the legitimacy of trans people’s gender identities. In other words, this line of reasoning is condescending and steeped in transphobia.”
It is this model of understanding about adults which Serano transposes wholesale onto children and adolescents, and it is wrong: a valid reason for thinking that some “people” are easily swayed or misled into transitioning is that those people are children. By Serano’s own reasoning, someone with no understanding of children and adolescents has no business writing about them.
Serano’s total lack of understanding is exposed most clearly in the refutation of the idea that social transition makes it difficult for a child to ‘transition back’ by linking to an article which compares this to the ease with which a child may disappoint dad by giving up baseball. The comparison is breathtakingly dismissive of parents’ experience and emotional investment in a child’s ‘transition’ as well as betraying a complete lack of understanding of children’s deep loyalty to their parents.
Serano frames people’s fear as a transphobic alarm that “cisgender people are being turned transgender” which would mean, according to Serano’s own definitions, turning a conforming child into a non-conforming child. The fear is surely that a cissexual child may be turned into a transsexual, a legitimate worry given that children are children and have no idea of what it actually means to be transsexual. ‘Socially transitioning’ a child is always an active decision made by adults who do understand and therefore carry a responsibility to be very cautious about a path which will leave a child infertile and medicalised for life.
One reason it’s important to hear other viewpoints on this issue is that adult transsexuals who promote medication for children almost inevitably cite their own personal experiences as non-conforming children who were forced into conforming to sex-role stereotypical behaviour themselves. Boys especially are likely to experience a parent’s anger at ‘behaving like a girl,’ not because of transphobia but because such behaviour by a boy is seen as lowering their status (misogyny) or evidence they may be gay (homophobia). There cannot help but be a personal and emotional investment in the idea of ‘affirmation’ which looks rosy to an adult male transsexual in contrast to how they were treated themselves. Serano concludes:
“… I am for the gender-affirming model because 1) it allows children to explore their genders without the constant pressure and threat of transphobia, and 2) because it treats every child as an individual who may have different desires and needs, and who may follow one of many different life paths.”
‘Gender-affirmation’ as a blanket model of treatment for a child who insists they are the opposite sex, of course does nothing of the sort, it treats every child as ‘transsexual,’ not as an individual. Affirmation cannot allow children to explore, it simply replaces an insistence of adherence to one sex-role stereotype with the opposite. Affirmation from trusted adults and social transition will condition a child into a self-identity at odds with a body which will then inevitably need to be ‘fixed’ with puberty blockers, setting children on a path which is not as easy to dip in and out of as Serano suggests.
Serano’s article is typical in many ways of the usual writing by trans activists in its callousness towards detransitioners and parents, its minimisation of the effects of sex-change medication and surgery (both psychological and physical), its dismissal of any debate as ‘transphobia,’ its careless attitude towards facts, research and any point of view which does not fit the happy trans story and its obfuscation of terms. The big difference is in its initial clarification of the exact meaning of words and the crucial distinction between ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’ which everyone involved with children needs to know.
The obvious conclusion is that we need to drop the word ‘transgender;’ children and teenagers who do not conform to sex-role stereotypical behaviours do not need to be given any labels. More importantly, just using the word ‘trans’ about these young people implies that non-conformity is the first step in an inevitable process of transition. We can already see the effects of the obfuscation of language in society’s acceptance of ‘transgender’ youth; in how supporting children and adolescents who are “viewed by society as defying gender norms in some significant way” (‘transgenderism’) morphs seamlessly into embracing the medical alteration of children’s healthy bodies (‘transsexualism’).
Whether we call children ‘transgender’ or ‘transsexual,’ the treatment pathway is exactly the same: sex-change medication and surgery. But the very recent introduction of the word ‘transgender’ has sanitised this reality in the public mind and obscured the fact that we are promoting sex-change for minors; it is since the word became common currency that we have seen an unprecedented rise in referrals of children to gender clinics. It’s also a word that is attractive to teenagers, denoting as it does a rebellion against ‘gender norms,’ which is deeply misleading.
For this clarification we are grateful to Serano. In working with children, it is crucial to know the exact meaning of diagnostic words so we await the same clarification of terms from trans organisations working with youth, the NHS, gender clinics and the UK government.